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Movie Review: Into the Woods

MV5BMTY4MzQ4OTY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM5MDI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Visually arresting and musically deep and inviting, Disney’s adaptation by Rob Marshall (Chicago) of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is mesmerizing in its own way. Though it gets bogged down by Meryl Streep as the witch – she’s too domineering, which sometimes stops, rather than frames or enhances, the show – the magic of maturing in the dark, bending and breaking woods flourishes in Marshall’s capable hands.

Intersecting stories of a baker and his barren wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), a boy and his mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman), the witch and her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), with Christine Baranski as the stepmother and Johnny Depp as the wolf, subtly blend in a kingdom with poignant touches, emotional songs and cinematic flair. The film does Sondheim justice.

Layers of life lessons are woven, embedded and peeled away with humor, tenderness and worldly bitterness, longing and cheer. That everything is packed into the rhythmic and musical tales of the witch’s curse commanding the childless couple to find a white cow, a golden shoe, a blood-red cape and hair as yellow as corn in exchange for a child is itself an achievement. The pictures move, glow and draw the audience inward from the start, as a grayness in the sky melds into something that is not as it first appears.

The theme that life is richer than cliches and expectations is well played, especially by Blunt, Pine and Ullman and the children, in particular, Huttlestone as an indefatigable boy named Jack, who is willing to be thought a fool to love his pet and brave enough to pierce the sky. The whole complicated storybook in song does merge with a wink at the camera, especially in the number with the handsome princes pining away for their lost maidens. With the witch twirling into thin air with melodrama and giants thumping from a distance, not to mention the wolf ready to pounce and tear into plump young flesh, Disney does not soften what is hard and knowing and the prospect of journeying into darkness to lighten one’s load is both dramatized and made musical with a black, brown and midnight blue look that fits the narrative. Fans of the stage show will notice discrepancies, of course, but the show’s core holds.

Taking the scope of a lifetime, from birth to death and everything meaningful in between, and putting it to poetry, music and pictures, Rob Marshall knits the characters’ stories, doubts and insecurities into a winding pattern, bringing untethered single lives into a communion that cashes in on hard-earned lessons with affirmation and an outward look. Into the Woods prowls and stalks the audience with cleverness in melody and words that mean something, for a change, with what it means not burned out on life, for a bigger change. But it is intended to be savored by those who have been to darker places and been burned (and who hasn’t?). If you can forgive the Streep-ness and keep the metaphor in mind as you chuckle, laugh and are moved to feel, you are likely to find wonder in Stephen Sondheim’s point that the best part of going in is coming out.

New Music from Melissa Manchester

manchester_06-glam_0407-v2Melissa Manchester’s self-made You Gotta Love the Life will be released on Feb. 10, 2015, according to her publicist. This is the first album since 2004 and she tells me that the new work celebrates 40 years of making music. I know this is true firsthand because I have previewed the CD, which was recorded near Los Angeles at Citrus College with help from Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Keb’ Mo’, Dionne Warwick, Dave Koz and, in one of his last recordings, Joe Sample. While I’m helping Melissa, whom I interviewed for the Oscar-nominated singer’s last motion picture recording (read the interview here) to tell the tale of her distinctive new album, I can attest that the introspective You Gotta Love the Life is an achievement in the Grammy-winning singer’s exceptional career.

What a recording career it is, too. Following songwriting studies at NYU with Paul Simon and a stint with Bette Midler, Manchester’s solo career took off in earnest with her recording of the Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager anthem “Don’t Cry Out Loud” which garnered her first Grammy nomination for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance in 1979. She won the award in the same category four years later for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” and two of her songs, “Through the Eyes of Love” and “The Promise,” were nominated for Academy Awards in the same year. Manchester’s songs have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Dusty Springfield, Alison Krauss, Stevie Nicks, Kenny Loggins and Barbra Streisand. She still writes for movies, including a gospel tune for Tyler Perry, “I Know Who I Am”, which she says she sings for herself on You Gotta Love the Life. Manchester, who played Mayim Bialik’s mother on NBC’s Blossom and co-created the ballroom dance extravaganza, Fascinating Rhythms, for the stage, is writing a musical and planning to tour to support the new record. She says she plans to perform at a release party in Dave Koz’s new lounge at Spaghettini in Beverly Hills.

The show’s and new album’s opener is the propulsive title track, You Gotta Love the Life. It’s Melissa Manchester‘s personal narrative about the hard, show business life and her press announcement today touts You Gotta Love the Life as an integration of the classic American songbook with jazz, ballads and samba featuring favorite cover songs, including “Something Wonderful” from The King and I, and new, original material, such as what turns out to be the late Hal David’s last recorded lyric. The first single, “Feelin’ for You”, premieres on January 19. Look for an interview and album review.


TV Review: The Nance with Nathan Lane

TheNanceEpMain Nathan Lane (The Birdcage, Modern Family) is the main reason to watch Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play The Nance, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, in the version airing this Friday night (9-11 pm ET, Oct. 10, check local listings) for the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center.

Lane is as expressive and entertaining as ever when the material permits as flamboyant homosexual Chauncey Miles, a headline nance (a theater term for a parody of a gay man and shortened version of “nancy boy” which was code for homosexual) during New York City’s 1930s burlesque era. Alternating composer Glen Kelly’s songs with sketches and monologues involving a younger man with whom Lane’s character becomes romantically partnered, the 2-hour televised play is, in turns, historically intriguing, enjoyable and maudlin. The depiction of this type of closeted gay performer’s life and work – the nance was typically portrayed by a heterosexual man – who is inherently suppressed and practically forced into dark, shadowy promiscuity is bound to become sobering and The Nance does.

No problem there, though the somber moments stop the show and highlight the play’s weak transitions and naturalistic theme, which amounts to a sad but interesting slice of gay life in Depression-era Manhattan. The Nance Starring Nathan Lane, part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival, is likely to enlighten and entertain, especially with such a talented actor in the demanding title role, as it showcases tacky routines that brought laughter to burlesque houses downtown while Mayor Fiorello La Guardia pledged to clean up the city in anticipation of the World’s Fair by pushing people like the nance (who is, incidentally, a Republican), off stage. Police brutality and other topical issues come to the forefront as half-naked dames and various show people stake a claim and make an exit. But The Nance, driven by Lane and a heartbreaking performance by Jonny Orsini as the man who tries to love him, leaves the audience feeling less empathetic than it should.

Music Review: Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

220px-Sam_Smith_In_the_Lonely_Hour“My debut album is just a diary from a lonely 21-year-old. That’s what it is. It was my way of talking about the only real issue in my life.” So says Sam Smith, a British songwriter and singer whose breakthrough debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is among this summer’s best efforts. It’s a thoroughly personal expression. On every song, Smith sings falsetto in perfect tune about his jilted and unrequited love for another man, a fact which deepens my appreciation for this well-crafted album but never detracts from its universality.

Do not confuse Sam Smith with Adele or other artists, such as Alanis Morissette, whose early music about romantic rejection has rightly or wrongly become associated with raw, unchecked bursts of pain and anger. Smith does not sing or compose what some might want in the form of psycho-bitch from hell anthems here. He doesn’t pop off. His music and lyrics (included on the liner notes) are introspective, not hostile. “I’ve Told You Now” is aching. “I’m Not the Only One” slithers a lament in smooth, piano keys. “Like I Can” is a guitar and beat-driven burst of angry confidence, not a middle finger at the universe. “Make It to Me” is a soulful plea to the world, with Smith singing to a distant, unknown stranger. These 14 tunes are more hopeful than hateful.

Of course, they’re not for everyone. It’s polished pop, with clarity in vocals, music and production. Smith’s sincerity makes In the Lonely Hour hum. He sings the song. He does not molest it or perform vocal gymnastics all over the recording. In this sense, his heartfelt melodies evoke early Whitney Houston records such as “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All”, and songs by James Blunt, combining rhythm and blues and pop-rock. Smith’s first album delivers songs by a young man who appears at ease expressing himself as romantic, intelligent and capable of displaying, not suppressing, emotions.

His lyrics are light poetry. His music is simple, well done pop. “Stay with Me” (the duet version with Mary J. Blige is not on this CD) succeeds with its sense of conviction, timing and candor and also because Sam Smith seems to understand the power of both his song and his performance. His control of what he has created is part of the deal. He doesn’t wallow in pain. Every note, every quaver, every ending of each song strives to move on. This is what makes In the Lonely Hour exceptional. As he pines on “Leave Your Lover”, it’s what Smith wants that matters to Smith, not just what he’s lost.

Other songs include a jazzy pop number, “Restart”, the reflective “Good Thing”, the bluesy “Not in That Way”, which captures a feeling I suspect every gay man understands, 1970s-style “Lay Me Down”, and two outstanding upbeat tunes written with Ben Ash, “Money on My Mind” and “Love Support”, defiant “Latch” and clubby “La La La”. In the Lonely Hour is not an album to hate men to, let alone hate the world to. This is an album to listen to, really listen and relate to, all while enjoying good music without feeling like part of an agenda.

Glen Campbell’s ‘A Better Place’

GOTC/GCThe quiet, introspective song “A Better Place” from Glen Campbell’s 2011 album, Ghost on the Canvas, is the subject of this post. The tune, written by Campbell with Julian Raymond, is both prayer and poem.

This is the type of song that lingers depending on one’s context. I’ve listened to it many times and I think it strikes me now because, in the middle of life, I have less time than I used to. I was reminded of this when I recently drove to Las Vegas to see a friend who’d had a major stroke and I had a car accident on the way, luckily without injury. Such traumatic events leave an impression and, from this, one may invoke a thought which may yield an insight. The thought I’ve had, which is not new but is newly relevant, is that making one’s soul means looking within and actively thinking about oneself and what one’s life ought to be. My sick friend, who wordlessly looked into my eyes from a hospital bed, teaches me this lesson. This is my context for “A Better Place”.

Listen to the tune for yourself and watch the video (its own reward) here.

I like that the song is simple and concise. I like that, while it’s in a certain sense outwardly religious, the place to which it refers can also and unambiguously be here on earth. I also like that its economy allows for some sweetness, in the subtle but marked vocal difference between the first “you’ll see”, which ends on a romantic lilt, and the second “you’ll see,” an affirmation which is more refined. It’s a farewell song, but it’s a sacred vow to those from whom one departs. Anyone who reads this blog already knows that I think that what ails the world is the contempt for ideals in a rampant cynicism that redounds to nihilism. It can be tempting to let what matters go. It can be hard to hold on. Glen Campbell’s song exudes the spirit of holding on, beginning with a plain, unadorned admission of failure in the first line, which appreciates how failure seeds success.

Southerner Campbell, a country and western singer who broke through in New Mexico and came to L.A. who is losing his mind from disease, concludes his video with an acknowledgement of “…the people around me that cared enough to help me do my best.” Striving to realize the best in a world without acceptance of a philosophy fit for man often seems damned impossible. Glen Campbell‘s “A Better Place”, like the Serenity Prayer, gently offers the wisdom that being one’s best is, in spite of the horrors of the world, still possible.